Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tales of the Cocktail, I'm a-comin'

Tales of the Cocktail is an annual ho-down in New Orleans that revolves around those spiritous drops of poetry known as cocktails. It draws top-shelf bartenders, distillers, importers, drinks aficionados, historians, writers, and the ethanol laity from around the world for seminars, workshops, peeks at what's coming down the pike, and insider looks at the cocktail industry. Check out their website for past events and photos.

This year, they've invited me to talk about postmodern moonshine, especially as it's practiced by home- and nano-distillers. Woo Hoo! Don't know about nano-distillers? They are the men and woman, often in white-collar, professional careers, who distill their own liquor such as whiskey and brandy. Used to be that we called these folks moonshiners. But when they are software engineers, dentists, and writers cranking out just a few liters a year of the very best liquor they can, they sometimes bristle at "moonshiner," a word freighted with meaning.

I'll be chairing a panel session called Hausgemacht: A Look into Modern Nano-Distilling* with Mike McCaw, co-author of The Compleat Distiller and co-founder of the Amphora Society and with Ian Smiley, author of Making Pure Corn Whiskey. I'm especially excited that Mike and Ian have accepted the invitation: the cocktail and distilling crowds often talk about a lot of the same things and this is a very cool opportunity for people from both camps to meet and swap, well, tales.

I'll be talking about the history and current status of the supposedly dead craft of bespoke liquor while Mike and Ian will talk about the types of stills in use today as well as the legality of personal distilling.

*Hausgemacht is a German word for homemade. Home distillers across the US are increasingly using it (sometimes abbreviated to HG) to describe their product. Why?'ll have to come to New Orleans to find out. You might just find me at that Tales of the Cocktail schmoozerie, the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone, evenings from July 16th-18. Tickets go on sale April 1st.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Noted Moonshiner Busted (again)

To those of us who grew up in Haywood County, Popcorn IS and ALWAYS WILL BE a folk hero. He is one of the last remaining relics of a by-gone era. He lives his life just the way many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did, and I find no fault in that.

~ TheBroker
Asheville Citizen-Times comment board

Hang out in southern distilling circles long enough and you’ll hear the name Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton. Well, Sutton’s been arrested. Again. Seems the Maggie Valley (NC) moonshining celebrity just can’t leave his liquor alone. He’d been selling his homemade and untaxed liquor recently to an undercover agent who laid out the purchases in an affidavit. Now, to be fair, Popcorn’s not exactly discreet about his moonshining. I’d heard of him way up in Pennsylvania years ago and it seems he’s been making liquor since before I was born.

Federal and state agents arrested the 61-year old moonshiner last week for distilling untaxed whiskey at several locations in Parrottsville, Tennessee. According to the Asheville Citizen-Times,
On Thursday, [liquor control agents] seized three 1,000-gallon whiskey stills, more than 850 gallons of moonshine and hundreds of gallons of mash and other ingredients used to make the liquor, as well as firearms and ammo.
Sutton, who acquired the nickname after an altercation with a popcorn vending machine some years ago, lives a very public life as a moonshiner in Maggie Valley, North Carolina (not so far from my publisher, in fact, and tourists have been known to have him pose with them for pictures). He’s been featured in some film and video work, and even published a book called “Me & My Likker” which is just about as scarce as hen’s teeth. Maybe if he had another run printed, he could start working on raising that $20,000 bail bond.

Popcorn, if you’re out there, let me know where I can get a copy for my moonshine library and archives.

In the meanwhile, enjoy these two videos of Popcorn stilling up a run of mountain dew.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rattlesnake Vodka!

image from
Over the years researching American moonshine, I came across all kinds of practices and traditions that would make some folks shudder. Animals, in particular (alive or dead, whole or in parts), often worked their ways into liquor. Sometimes critters and bugs were attracted to the sweet warmth of a fermenting outdoor mash. Other times, they were put in there because of supposed medicinal purposes.

Sometimes distillers inserted them into the distillate at the end of a run. Looks like the tradition is a alive in Texas.

When I saw a piece about on the news tonight about Bayou Bob's Brazos River Rattlesnake Ranch, I knew immediately who the intended market was for his rattlesnake vodka...

From an AP wire piece today:
A rattlesnake rancher who calls himself Bayou Bob found a new way to make money: Stick a rattler inside a bottle of vodka and market the concoction as an "ancient Asian elixir." But Bayou Bob Popplewell's bright idea appears to have landed him on the wrong side of the law, because he has no liquor license.

Read more here...

Apparently, Popplewell had 429 bottles of snake vodka and one bottle of rattlesnake tequila. Now, that tequila, I'd be interested in...

And let that be a lesson about selling liquor without a license.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From the Archives: Pony Punch

Still managing clumsily with a mangled hand, so I decided to pull up a recipe from the archives I'd already transcribed. From an undated British drinks book (c. 1900), here's

Pony Punch

(not to be mistaken for a Donkey Punch)

Rub 4 lumps of sugar on the rind of a large lemon, and dissolve them in one and half gills of strong green tea, add the strained juice of three lemons, 8 oz. sugar dissolved in a gill of water, a bottle of Chablis, a gill each of rum and brandy, a wineglass full of arrack or sherry, and grated nutmeg and powdered cinnamon to taste. Mix well, strain, heat the punch over the fire (being careful that it does not boil) and serve at once.

~ Home-Made Beverages and American Drinks
M. E. Steedman (nd) The Food and Cookery Publishing Agency, London.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Lacking in the Finger Department

My knives are sharp and my hand steady. Outside a few burns, I've never hurt myself in the kitchen. Yesterday I made up for it in spades when, with the well-steeled heel of an 8" Wustof chef's knife, I crunched through my thumb and took off a chunk of my middle finger.

Yep; it's sharp.
Never in my life have I put my Anglo-Saxon linguistic heritage through such a rigorous pacing. If something other than four-letter words, their derivatives, and cognates spewed from my mouth, it was quite unintentional.

I was dicing a few slices of Allan Benton's amazing country ham with plans to prepare some American bitterballen to go with tasting notes for Anchor's American genever. Don't know bitterballen? They are deep-fried ping-pong ball-sized croquettes (not all that unlike cajun-style boudin balls for that matter) that are classic accompaniments to genever in Dutch bars. I figured an American take on one deserved another.

The bleeding's (mostly) stopped, but the insane pain of typing and occasional waves of nausea mean I'm taking a brief hiatus on both typing and knife-wrangling. Stay tuned for tasting notes, a bitterballen recipe, moonshine videos, and a review of C. Anne Wilson's Water of Life: A History of Wine-Distilling And Spirits; 500 BC - AD 2000. 

Edit 6/8/12:
  • The bitterballen recipe is here
  • The review of Wilson's book is here.
  • The rest of my thumb and finger are...somewhere...around here. I'm sure of it. Unless I threw them down the kitchen sink. Entirely plausible.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Anchor Distilling shines with Genevieve genever

Now, it is not true, as it's been alleged, that my baby bottle was a stone crock of Dutch whiskey with a rubber nipple slapped on top. But it's no secret that the fruit of the still has long held a particular allure for me. I will always champion distillers small and large who put out quality products. The smile on my face this week, however, threatened to split my head nearly in half. Anchor Distilling, authors of Junipero Gin and the Old Potrero whiskeys, has developed a pot-distilled American genever called Genevieve.

A say what? You heard me, an American genever. Also known as Hollands or Schiedam (even, incorrectly, as "Dutch gin"), genever or jenever is a malt distillate flavored with juniper berries.

I came to appreciate the drink while in Amsterdam during my days as a museum curator. Bart Cuperus, who, along with Joop Witteveen and Johannes Van Dam, founded the collective library of cookery books known as De Stichting Gastronomische Bibliotheek, introduced me to varieties, glassware, and ways to serve the drink. At the time, it had a reputation akin to bourbon in the United States—an old man's drink, but enjoying a renaissance among a younger crowd.

Over the past few years, American cocktail geeks have yearned for samples, but have been stymied by very small range of imports into the US. I insisted all my friends going to the Netherlands bring back a bottle, if not for me, then for themselves.

With Anchor's new product, I can stop (but probably won't) asking them to schlepp back my favorite oude jenevers (that is, "old style" genevers rather than just old ones). Apparently, a mere 700 bottles of Genevieve were released until production gets up and running.

You can be excused for not having ansinthe, Parfair Amour, or falernum in your liquor cabinet, but when you find genever of this quality and craftsmanship in the US, grab it, chill it, and serve it neat in small glasses.

From Anchor's website:

Genevieve™ Genever-Style Gin is an offshoot of our research into the history and evolving production methods that led to modern gin. In the late 19th century, technological advances enabled distillers to produce neutral spirits at very high proofs. When re-distilled with complex blends of juniper berries and other natural botanicals, these neutral spirits were transformed into what we know today as modern “distilled dry gin.” The earliest gins, however—which came to be known as “genever” (or “Geneva gin,” or “Hollands gin,” or “Schiedam-style gin”)—were a very different product. To be sure, juniper berries and other botanicals are used in both styles, but 17th-century “genever” gin was distilled in primitive pot stills from a grain mash. Genevieve is our attempt to re-create this ancient and mysterious gin style. We use a grain mash of wheat, barley, and rye malts, which is distilled in a traditional copper pot still with the same botanicals we use in our modern “distilled dry gin,” Junípero Gin. We hope you will enjoy comparing these two unique products, the alpha and omega of the gin story.

Goes well with:
  • David Wondrich's fantastic Imbibe!, an erudite and damn funny delving into the life, work, and influences of 19th-century bartender Jerry Thomas, author of America's first bartending guide. Though I prefer my genever neat and ice-cold, Wondrich gives several recipes for its use in cocktails.
  • Het Genevercollege Nimmer Zat (an informal discussion of a group of Dutch genever enthusiasts, also with links to proeflokalen—tasting houses where you can sample Dutch moutwijn, korenwijn, and genevers in the Netherlands).


A Week of Zeke: The Aftermath

Oh, my God. It smells like lavender cigar farts in here.

~ Dr. Morpheus

Zeke's back East, slinging cheese and my schedule and diet are getting back to normal. My original intention was to post daily updates of what we were drinking and eating, but it was just too much. There were more beers than I have digits and cocktails aplenty. Big stinky cheeses from lots of places. Bacon mints. Bacon-studded chocolate. Sea salt chocolates. Tacos in Mexico. Tamales in San Diego. DIY steaks grilled on a communal pit in a San Diego bar. Flanken-cut ribs, bacon-riddled succotash, crusty local breads, and hangtown fry. Brewery tours and behind-the-scenes samplings of vintage beers being sold for obscene amounts on eBay. Hell, we even went to the Tijuana Costco.

Dr. Morpheus, my perpetual sidekick, is a anesthesiologist by trade, but sleeps in as much as he can, so he's earned the nickname doubly. Naturally, he missed out on much of the shenanigans, but attended when he could. The quote above came as the three us of were getting in the car. Now, I might smoke four to six cigars a year—a nostalgic indulgence, reminding me of my grandfather and his habitual Dutch Masters.

I smoked a year's allotment over the last two weeks.

Some of that may have happened in the car. Even with the windows down, the smell lingered. Add to that the 6 ounces of really aromatic lavender I bought at the Hillcrest Farmers' Market, plus the bag of cheeses that Zeke bought at Venissimo, all of which we left in the car for about an hour while snagging a drink at a local bar on a warm St. Paddy's day, and, well...It was was dag nasty smelling in there.

The cheese smell is gone, the cigar is barely noticeable. But it still kinda smells like someone's grandmother's linen drawer in there. Fortunately, the skies are blue and it's t-shirt weather. Driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down and the sunroof open might just blow out the last of it.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

A Week of Zeke: Day One

(Starlite, San Diego)

You made a yummy sound.

~ Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein

I’ve been quiet lately. Not just because of work, but also because we’ve got a houseguest. Our friend Zeke has come from Philadelphia where he’s a cheesemonger at DiBruno Bros, an Italian Market cheese store that’s been around since Mussolini was in power (in fact, if you know where to look, you can even find a photo of il Duce hanging in the back of the store).

Zeke and I share a lot of tastes. Music? Eh, we like some of the same. Skating? You’d never find my old ass on a skateboard (the phrase “greys on trays” comes to mind), but him? He’s already replaced his board's wheel bearings since arriving. Food and drink? Now there, we could’ve been separated at birth. The last few days have been filled with eating, drinking, smoking a stogie or two, and catching up on old times.

As an introduction to California, I took him straight from his flight to Starlite, a San Diego lounge that’s right on the way home from the airport (if you take a short detour, go under the overpass, and scoot down India Street, then take that little dogleg into the parking lot along the side of the building).

Starlite gives lie to the notion that you can’t find well-made cocktails in San Diego—an untruth in any event, but with enough kernel of reality to make me a little sensitive when I hear it. This place is almost like a private clubhouse and, from the outside, you’d never know what treats lie within.

Over several hours of yakking and talking with co-owner Matt Hoyt, we managed to sample an old fashioned; a Dr. Noggin (which a quicker wit might have named an elder fashioned); a Kentucky Colonel with cherry-vanilla bitters; that New Orleans favorite, a Sazerac (with Sazerac rye and Peychaud bitters, naturally); two local ales; a Maple Hill 23-year old rye, and, the hard-to-track-down-in-these-parts Pappy Van Winkle 23-year old bourbon. Ambrosia.

To go along with all these, we had some house-made sausage with sauerkraut, salami, some bresaolo (a dark, air-cured beef eye of round, sliced as thin as a dime), cicciolo (a rough, fatty, course-cut potted sausage, somewhere between a country pate and loose-textured coteghino), pickles, toasted bread, and, a treat that Zeke brought from DiBruno Bros, about a half-pound of mole salame made by Armadino Batali (yeah, Mario’s father) in Seattle. The kitchen was nice enough to slice down for us. We shared, of course, with Matt, the chef, and our bartender.

Do yourself a favor and pick up, well, any of Batali’s cured meats from his Seattle store, Salumi, but don’t miss the mole salame—air-cured and flavored with chocolate, cinnamon, ancho and chipotle chiles. Yeah, I know. Sounds weird. It ain’t.


Monday, March 10, 2008

The Stills of Dubois County

Photo from Dubois County Museum (Jasper, Indiana)
Ray Hinkle, chief of the State Excise Police from Indianapolis,
Bruce Maxwell, captain from Indianapolis,
and Robert Nordhoff, lieutenant in charge of the Southern Indiana district
pose with stills confiscated in 1937.

Because of its popularity, the area's moonshine became widely known
as "Dubois County Dew" and was secretly hauled as far as Chicago, St. Louis and Louisville, Ky. In one city, some was delivered to a high-ranking member of the clergy with the code phrase:
"The hymnals have arrived."

~ Greg Eckerle

Al Capone must have been the busiest gangster in all the Midwest. It seems you can't meet an old-school moonshiner who didn't meet, see, or hear of ol' Scarface surfacing at still sites, bootlegging warehouses, and even Florida boat slips to help personally haul in the wet goods. When it comes to tales of moonshining and bootlegging, though, it's fair to say that stories outweigh facts by a wide margin. And who doesn't love a good story? I'm not saying Capone didn't do all those things, but even the sleep-prone George Washington didn't get around that much.

Not surprisingly, Capone gets mention in a new exhibit called "The Stills of Dubois County" at the Dubois County Museum in Jasper, Indiana. Unlike some of the more obscure places the crime boss was said to have appeared, it's not out of the question that he might have been down inspecting wares. Dubois County, after all, is not so far from Chicago and well within the old moonshine belt.

The exhibit explores the role of moonshine and moonshining in southern Indiana during the early twentieth century. If you're in the neighborhood, stop to check it out.

Dubois County Museum
2704 Newton St.
Jasper, IN 47546

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Dr. Noggin Cocktail

(In which Rowley vents on vodka and christens a new cocktail)

"Dr. Cocktail hereby announces:
Henceforth [the excessively fruity version of an old fashioned cocktail]
will never again be served!
The second version, with 2 dashes of bitters,
1/2 teaspoon of sugar, a few drops of water,
and a lone broad swathe of the orange peel ONLY,
muddled to express the orange oil,
and combined with good rye or Bourbon—
this drink is henceforth known EXCLUSIVELY as the Old-Fashioned
... See? World peace can be that easy."

~ Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh
Vintage Spirits & Forgotten Cocktails

Vodka, apparently, makes me angry. Oh, not in a bloody Mary, of course. And there’s certainly a place for lemon drops in any mixer’s toolkit, especially when less seasoned drinkers are about and you serve ‘em crusta-style with a glittering rim of sugar hardened on the glass's rim and a fat lemon peel collar.

But when I go to a bar serving $11 cocktails that’s got more vodkas than all species and brands of whiskeys combined...sigh. I don't know if it's the Irish in me or the fact that I'm a leo (which gullible people take to mean I'm determined to have things my way), but I just start to sulk.

The neighborhood joint we visited last night had more Canadian whiskies, even, than bourbons. No rye to be seen. What the hell? I secretly suspected the owners were Canucks. Or Kennedys. Fancy vodka drinks filled the menu, with a smattering a gin and rum concoctions. I wanted to like it, honest I did. But the greenhorn bartender was nearly in the weeds just making our two drinks—from their menu, mind you, not some convoluted Jerry Thomas baroque masterpieces that I requested just to break his stones—well, after the first drink, my own mother could have served me chocolate cake on my birthday and I would have been pissy.

So after the first round of their new-fangled cocktails, I ordered an old fashioned from the bar manager. We talked about what I wanted and how it should be done. I watched as he muddled the orange peel with bitters and sugar, drop in ice, and reach for the bourbon. Turned to my friends, Dr. Morpheus and Dr. Noggin who had just joined us, for a beat to admit as they teased me that, yes, I should just have the recipe printed on the back of my cards, then looked back just in time to see him drop it all in a shaker and shake the bejabbers out of it.

Damn it.

This led to a lesson on why not to shake (in short, shaking ruins this particular drink by creating loads of tiny bubbles, making it almost effervescent plus cheap low-density ice-machine ice dilutes the drink way too fast). From the get-go, it tasted spent and watery. Hey, he asked why I wasn’t drinking it, and insisted I tell him.

So he re-made the drink. Less ice, no shaking. Nirvana. In a moment of inspiration, I dropped a half-ounce float of St. Germain elderflower liqueur into the glass. Then we did another that way. The doctors approved. And you know what? I wasn’t pissy any more. The guy salvaged the night for me with a dose of whiskey and professionalism. I’ll still give all that vodka the hairy eyeball, but for his eagerness to get the drink right and for being genuinely curious about why I thought the first version was bad (he agreed), I’m giving him a big thumbs up. And I’ll be back.

In the meanwhile, I'll probably be making more cocktails I've named after the neurologist. With apologies to Dr. Cocktail for gilding the lily, here's

The Dr. Noggin Cocktail

Use a vegetable peeler to get a single, wide piece of orange peel (just the zest, mind you—no white pith or pulp). Because the St. Germain is sweetened, you might back off the sugar called for in Haigh's old fashioned cocktail.

1 broad swath of orange peel
¼-½ tsp sugar
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 dashes of water
3 oz bourbon
½ oz St Germain elderflower liqueur

Muddle the orange peel with the sugar, water, and bitters in a rocks glass. Put one or two large lumps of ice in the glass. Pour on the bourbon and give it a brief stir. Add the half-ounce of St. Germain to the top of the drink and enjoy. Repeat as necessary.

Goes well with
  • Renewing an Old Fashion, a thorough review of the literature by Robert "DrinkBoy" Hess (in which I was tickled to see we had similar experiences with unsure bartenders) on the origins and variations of the old fashioned cocktail
  • Mister Mojito (David Nepove) sells hardwood muddlers in maple, cherry, walnut, and plastic (plus a smattering of other bar supplies worth checking out)

Friday, March 7, 2008

A Drunkard's Belly Needs Love, Too

Carne asada fries never taste so good as they do at 2:30 after a long night of debauchery.

Drunk-tagged trash can outside La Posta, San Diego.

Late night revelers are always in need of fortification, even if they sometimes don’t realize it. When I’m out past my bedtime, I’m particularly inclined to hit take-out stands, whether that’s tacos in Tijuana, döner kebabs in Dublin, hot steamy Nutella-slathered crepes in Paris, or those thin-crusted, folded-in-half, snarf-em-on-the-spot slices of pizza studded with diced Canadian bacon you can find near some Montreal bars.

Around San Diego, taquerías are my late-night default option. Drive-though ceviche is an option at Los Panchos (though my friend Dr. Noggin* has jettisoned them after getting hold of a bad clam that wrecked her gut). Pollo asado at La Fuente works if you don't mind the friendly jostling of the dance crowd pouring out of the club a block away. But my sentimental favorite is the carne asada at La Posta. Yeah, there’s better to be had, but when you’ve got your swerve on and before you head to bed, it's a hot, satisfying breather that allows you pause and reflect before soldiering on: "Is bedtime really all it's cracked up to be?"

* A pseudonym, but not for some besotted alter-ego. No, Dr. Noggin is a neurologist whose vices include drinking, smoking, culinary battles with her family, and hanging out with me.

Goes well with


Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bourbon House Soiree

I'm just back from several days on the road. Yes, drinking was involved. No, not while driving. Primarily beer and whiskey, but then I'm partial to grains and yeast, so that's no surprise.

Among a load of emails, I found an invitation from the New Orleans Bourbon Society to attend their Old vs. New Bourbon Cocktail Soiree March 6th at Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House.

If I can swing a trip to New Orleans, you might just see me there, but with Tales of the Cocktail coming up, I might have to save my ducats for an extended trip from Memphis to the Big Easy and look into some distilling traditions in Mississippi along the way.